The familiar rhythms of academia lend a comforting presence on college campuses. Each autumn as summer temperatures begin to fall, days shorten, and leaves flutter down, fresh-faced students arrive en masse, their futures pregnant with possibility.
Last year, however, as students and educators in the Gulf Coast region prepared for the onset of fall classes, an unexpected visitor interrupted the traditional proceedings: Hurricane Katrina.
In the storm's wake, nearly 1,600 lives were lost, property damage numbered in the tens of billions of dollars, and educational institutions found themselves in disarray.
Elizabeth Moore Rhodes, the director of distance learning and the educational technology support specialist for Xavier University of Louisiana, vividly remembers the destruction that the hurricane left behind. "Practically every building on campus had water in it," she says. "My office is in the library, and the library had 4 to 5 feet of water on the first floor."
The office spaces and holdings in the library were completely destroyed. A large computer lab on the library's ground floor was also ruined. Teachers and students alike sought safety and classes were canceled. "All of our academic programs were interrupted, even the distance courses. Everything was down until January 2006," says Rhodes.
Once faculty and staff members finally reconvened, it was clear that a new disaster plan had to be formulated-a plan with which, even if the campus' brick and mortar facilities were again damaged, distance learning could continue with the support of a reliable and flexible network infrastructure.
"We've developed short-term plans as well as long-term plans on how we can get communication back initially and then get our course management system software running again with the expectation that students could continue with their distance learning programs," says Rhodes.
The university is putting arrangements in place to provide faculty members with internet access at predetermined evacuation sites. Faculty members are also being trained extensively in the Blackboard course management system so they will be able to deliver content and administer tests in the event of another disaster. As for more long-term plans, the preparation is focusing on data transfer and the coordination of remote locations where-if the campus must be closed-all data cartridges and systems will be taken and where host servers will have already been lined up.
Katrina changed the scope of Xavier's distance education program, which first launched in 2003. Prior to the hurricane, education courses were not offered online at the graduate course level. But when New Orleans was evacuated, its school system collapsed and a large number of schoolteachers were out of jobs and displaced around the country. To help them, Xavier added online education courses to its roster.
Rhodes believes that if online courses were not added at Xavier following the storm, then teachers from the New Orleans area would have pursued their graduate studies elsewhere. "We met the needs of our audience," she says. "The students needed online courses; they couldn't come back to campus and they didn't have jobs here anymore."
At Loyola University New Orleans, students were moving into residence halls as Katrina approached. Forced to evacuate, they ended up dispersing to nearly 400 different institutions. The majority of Loyola's classes were canceled, although after a short shutdown of nine days, distance education programs in areas such as ministry, nursing, and health-care management carried on.
Bret Jacobs, executive director of Information Technology, attributes this continuity to having an actionable disaster recovery plan that had been rehearsed annually. "We were a little ahead of the curve because we had exercised our plan on a few occasions and had just completed our test for 2005 in March," he explains.
Still, says Jacobs, there were a number of challenges to combat. For a few days administrators were unable to act because of a complete failure in land- and cell-based telecommunications. The campus didn't have power for nearly a month. The Blackboard system wasn't operating for more than a week after the storm.
With such events in hindsight and to prepare for future disasters, the university has taken steps to apply lessons learned. Administrators have opted to move course management to a hosted site, so that they can shrink the nine days that Blackboard was down last time to, hopefully, zero days next time around.
Jacobs has also developed a "technology triage" that outlines what technologies would be restored in an interim time frame and what will not. As a member of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the university is also exploring how it can work with sister institutions in the event of another shutdown.
Jacobs believes that hybrid courses, in which traditional classroom sessions are supplemented with online components, might ease idleness in the case of a future shutdown. "Our students are already in the habit of checking their assignments online and getting course materials, so the bridge is already there," he says.
While hybrid courses wouldn't continue without interruption in the event of a major disaster (since facilities would likely be damaged), they would provide a way for students to continue accessing coursework. Once any damaged facilities reopened, face-to-face instruction would then continue and be tailored to the distance learning that took place in the interim.
Unlike institutions in New Orleans, the University of Houston was not directly affected by Katrina. However, it experienced a storm impact all its own.
Around 1,000 displaced students from New Orleans enrolled at the university, with approximately 700 of those electing to take online courses that were added as part of a special "second start" semester that kicked off on September 20, 2005.
Marshall Schott, executive director for educational technology and university outreach, says that the distance learning programs provided a flexible and accessible means of accommodating the displaced students. Fortunately for all parties involved, the institution's administrators and faculty were already well versed in the intricacies of distance education.
The university's first distance learning program launched in the early 1980s, when courses were delivered to off-campus sites via traditional and videoconferencing instruction. Over the past two decades, the program has evolved significantly: Now courses are available by broadcast television, DVD, and online. Currently, University of Houston Distance Education enrolls nearly 20,000 individuals annually.
On the heels of last year's hurricanes, Schott and his team are developing contingency plans for environmental disasters that could occur in the Houston metropolitan area. In phase one, they are developing listservs for all courses so that faculty can maintain e-mail contact with their students in the event of an emergency. In phase two, which will take place in 2007, they are moving toward an environment in which faculty can activate a course shell, or template, to post syllabi, course materials, announcements, and other information through Blackboard Learning System-Vista Enterprise License. In addition, administrators are exploring remote-site hosting for the school's Vista servers, and faculty will be trained in effectively using the enterprise system.
Disaster or no disaster, the goal is to utilize distance education to improve learning outcomes. Like his counterpart at Loyola, Schott sees hybrid courses as a near-term growth segment. "Hybrid courses give faculty the opportunity to deliver material to students so they can come to class more prepared to engage in higher-level discussions and activities. Students like the convenience of one-day-per-week class meetings in a reduced seat-time format," he observes.
Most students taking online courses expect flexible and accessible support. They also often expect an immediate response. To this end, a university's support staff is critical to the effectiveness of a distance education program in the event of a disaster.
Support staff duties include, among other things, student registration, scheduling, and working on IT issues. Schott advises that procedures and staff members be evaluated regularly.
Comprehensive evaluations to ensure the quality and consistency of a distance learning program are also important, he says. "Learning outcomes and student satisfaction need to be benchmarked against standards for traditional classroom delivery. In order to ensure that you are measuring the right things, survey instruments unique to distance learning environments usually need to be created," advises Schott.
For the University of Houston, such surveying involves a two-pronged approach. The first element focuses on institutional effectiveness and assesses the extent to which faculty create an effective teaching and learning environment. The second element assesses infrastructure and learning support.Shifting Priorities
While University of Houston online educators welcomed an influx of new distance learning students to the Lone Star State (virtually, at least), Mark Hendricks viewed firsthand the devastating impact that Katrina left behind. Just 10 days after the hurricane blew through, Hendricks, a system administrator for communications and information technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was in Gulfport, Miss., installing portable networks.
His mission? To rebuild internet service for a group of Virginia Tech medical students who were providing health-care services in the region. Once this task was completed, Hendricks and his team, armed with a satellite dish and radio, journeyed to Alcorn State University (Miss.) to help resuscitate the institution's online infrastructure.
Reflecting on his Katrina experience, Hendricks sees a glaring need for educational institutions to have recovery plans in place. "Universities need to make business continuity a priority," he says.
Indeed, administrators are coming to grips with the myriad complexities that accompany re-establishing distance education and related information and communications services following a disaster. Network infrastructures must be rapidly rebuilt. Information must be culled from off-site data storage sites. An operational hot site needs to be set up that will handle the needs of students, faculty, and staff.
Jacobs of Loyola attributes his institution's relatively quick recovery time to the fact that a hot site was actionable and exercised. Otherwise, he says, "We would have had almost insurmountable challenges." Schott notes that there are a number of challenges to keep in mind when putting contingency plans in place. In addition to exploring remote hosting, Schott and his team are also looking to build hot sites at the University of Houston's regional campuses that could provide backup support if the main campus were to be impacted.
Of course, it's not just hurricanes that are capable of disrupting educational pursuits. Colleges and universities can be hobbled by earthquakes, tornadoes, or even tsunamis. No region is insulated from potential terrorist attacks or the possibility of an influenza epidemic.
As the last handful of years have taught us, disasters can strike at any place, at any time. In an effort to ensure educational continuity, many universities have opted to collaborate with other schools.
Partnering with colleagues offers several benefits. "All institutions have strengths and weaknesses and can learn something from others facing the same issues," explains Hendricks. "Also, collaboration is probably the most economical way to ensure educational continuity."
Joining forces from a technological standpoint makes sense as well. There are a number of possible solutions to the impediments thrust upon distance education, but not all institutions are privy to the most recent advances. Strength in numbers makes the possibility less likely that a single catastrophic event can wipe out all remedies.
Hendricks provides an example using his employer. "If UNL buys heavily into satellite technology, and a solar flare takes out communications satellites for a period, it would be nice to have a partner like Texas A&M who is working with microwave networks to help us with our situation."
Joining an established consortium can also be beneficial. Organizations like the Sloan Consortium and American Distance Education Consortium can help administrators correspond with counterparts at other institutions. Such communication enables members to build a network while keeping abreast of possible resources that could help keep programs running, points out Hendricks.
Consortia also provide invaluable support in times of need. After Katrina struck, more than 150 colleges and universities joined efforts with the Sloan Consortium and the Southern Regional Education Board to offer an online institution. Dubbed "Sloan Semester," the initiative provided tuition-free online courses to students affected by the storm. The online catalog listed more than 1,300 courses, and, in all, more than 8,000 enrollments were processed.
"We went to the aid of people who needed it by contacting a number of institutions that could provide help," says Burks Oakley II, co-chair of the Sloan Semester Steering Committee.
If there was a silver lining to the impact that Katrina had on higher education institutions, it was the fierce support that the affected universities received from their brethren in a time of crisis. The hurricane also, no doubt, provided a resounding wake-up call in terms of disaster planning.
According to the 2006 Current IT Issues Survey conducted by EDUCAUSE, disaster recovery/business continuity was the fourth most common challenge in terms of strategic importance to chief information officers and others surveyed-up from number 10 the previous year.
Reflects Hendricks: "Katrina proved that institutions can move swiftly to find solutions. It would just be a lot smoother if there were already plans in place to recover from a disaster."
Chelan David is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Wash. He has recently written articles for EContent Magazine and Smart Business Los Angeles.